The show gets going just after 12:30 a.m. A singer warms up the crowd with a sort of lounge-act send-up - imagine classic crooner Matt Monro slinging some hardcore gangsta rap. Soon, a ballerina mistakes a can of Raid for deodorant and knocks herself out. A cowboy with gold boots and a pogo stick can't seem to control his gun or his comically flopping comb-over.
The short acts are, in the best sense, nuts: A giant banana and a clown do turns as astronauts; there's a folk song about, ahem, intestinal distress; a power-rocker does a juggling act; and a delicate Japanese baton-twirler and faceless guy in a full-body black jumpsuit perform as an improbable duo.
What's happening this Sunday night in a nondescript Commercial Center banquet hall is wacky and funny. It's sometimes puzzling, and always dementedly strange. It's a clown show, but not just any clown show. The 1230 Clownshow is a collective of Strip entertainers who've banded together in their off hours to create a stripped-down, gritty update of the comedy variety show. 1230 refers to the show's time: Sunday nights at 12:30, after the performers are done with their day jobs. If Cirque du Soleil had started as a garage band, it might look like this.
Like Cirque, the 1230 Clownshow has to be seen. But not because it's a spectacle; rather because it's the opposite of one. The show is about the energy of the spirited crowd. It's about performers trying out new acts - and messing up. It's about - at least metaphorically - working without a net.
Dare to flail
Las Vegas entertainment is all about commercially viable, safe, large-scale spectacle. It's about giant flasgship productions such as Cirque's "O" or "KA," or Wynn's "Le Rêve, or precision-crafted imports from Broadway. Its about bigger, louder, splashier, flashier. In other words, Las Vegas is full of "world-class performers with time on their hands." So explains Benedikt Negro, a pantomime with "O" and one of the show's creators. Negro and production manager Brett Alters, a clown with "Le Rêve," have assembled 19 performers - clowns, musicians, acrobats, jugglers, dancers, mimes and magicians - who ply their trade nightly in shows that range from "Jubilee" to "Phantom - The Las Vegas Spectacular," "Matsuri" to "Crazy Horse Paris." As good as they are, they're more than well-disciplined cogs in gigantic entertainment machines. They are also creative talents, artists, with their own ideas and a desire to find a venue when they can experiment and do what they want.
Inspired by The Box, the innovative New York City late-night variety theater, the 1230 Clownshow represents a return to the subversive and daring spirit that launched Cirque - and Las Vegas, before both became super-slick global brands.
[Hear more: Learn about the secret (and hilarious) lives of three local clowns on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]
"What Cirque has done to circus, we want to do with clowning," says Alters. "1230 is kind of a revitalization of clowning and vaudeville specifically. Because, especially with the recession and things like that, cheap comedy that people can feel like is accessible to them on many levels is what 1230 is trying to be - or what it is."
The science of clowning
Most of the ensemble members, including Negro and Alter, met early last year in Stefan Haves' clown class. Haves is the Los Angeles-based comic act designer and clown coach for Cirque du Soleil. For him, concocting clown performances is a science, and he sees the clowns as at the very heart of the Cirque aesthetic.
"The clown is the bridge of the show with the audience," says Haves. "A clown can get as big an applause if he stands on one leg as a huge pyrotechnic act, if you set it up properly."
Haves wanted his students to do more than work out sketches in a studio. "I dared them to start to put their work in front of an audience. And they took me up on it," he says. There was talk of a recital, but Negro - whose easygoing smile does little to conceal a supreme sense of self-assurance - had something bigger in mind: A cabaret. "The reason we have one mindset about clowning is Stefan," says Negro.
But what is a clown, anyway? It seems like it would have a simple answer, but with this crowd, you can expect a more philosophically inflected account. To them, it has something to do with being in the moment, with self-consciously playing the fool rather than just being one, with a notion of nonconformity that owes more to Charlie Chaplin than, say, Bozo. For the Clownshow founders, the clown is a modern jester, a social commentator, an artist. "I dont see a clown as somebody who is wearing makeup and has a red clown nose," says Negro. "For me, a clown is somebody who for me does something that he reverses what is common. He does something that is uncommon. He does something that in our understanding doesn't make sense." "It's about what's in the moment," says Alters. "If he just describes it in words, not a big deal. If you film it, doesn't make sense. Being there, live, is what brings clowning to life."
Haves flies in before each show to see what the performers have come up with, offering critiques and suggestions: a part needs a better set-up or a better pay-off. He breaks down each vignette as if it's a science - which for him, it is. He's adamant, too, about the value of brevity.
"If a show is over an hour long, truth be told, you can only laugh uproariously for 45 minutes." With each show, the performers have tightened and shortened their comic sketches. I ask Haves whether he plans on appearing with the cast on stage. (He runs his own 40-member troupe, Your Town Follies, in L.A. )
"Part of this for me is seeing them produce the whole thing, he says. "I help with the aesthetic; they're learning by doing."
They accomplish this level of clowning through entertaining but disciplined rehearsals at a loft space on the west side of town. Performers come in and work their numbers down, while Negro and Alters oversee, making suggestions - and helping tweak, splice and deconstruct acts when necessary.
Step right up
Since its debut in August, the 1230 Clownshow has performed roughly once a month. But there's too much playful chaos to create to settle for monthly. The goal is to produce a show a week - while keeping each show different and each infused with the spirit of inventing new gags and trying new things - and to find a permanent home downtown.
"It's nice to also work in a place like 1230 where it's an intimate venue. You're really on your toes, you're really discovering every night," says Alters.
Everyone is careful not to say anything that might be considered a jab at their big Strip employers - of course, the performers are on their toes when they perform for their day jobs - but it's also clear they relish the artistic control they have over their upstart troupe. (For its part, Cirque officials say that while Cirque du Soleil isn't affiliated with the 1230 Clownshow, it encourages troupe members to pursue artistic interests beyond the Cirque stage.)
I pose the big question: Have the big Cirque shows jumped the shark? With news of yet another Cirque show in the works - this one focusing on Michael Jackson - it's been said that the subversive, innovative spirit of Cirque has, inevitably, had to yield to its new reality as a safe, hugely successful juggernaut.
Negro dismisses the notion, pointing out that Cirque's vaudeville effort, "Banana Shpeel," didn't catch on and that Cirque quashed the show even though it probably could have made a mint touring it around the country. If Cirque is too big, Negro says, maybe it's only because no other group has tried to measure up.
"[Cirque CEO Guy Laliberté] would like to have somebody he could battle with," Negro speculates. "Until somebody steps up and battles Guy, yes, it will be all Cirque du Soleil. Maybe somebody has the balls to step up." In the meantime, maybe it's the 1230 Clownshow that's stepping up - or at least offering us something new to get excited about. If Vegas is king of spectacle, it comes sometimes at the cost of a lack of spontaneity, a lack of improv-fueled élan.
The 1230 aesthetic is nowhere better captured than by Alberto del Campo and David Underwood, hand-to-hand act artists with Le Rêve, who perform "Golden Shower," an absolutely brilliant parody of the strenuous, strongman balancing act seen in many Strip productions. People may marvel at the seemingly superhuman abilities hand-to-hand acrobats possess - using each other's bodies for feats of balance and strength - but at the same time, there's something, you know, a bit gay about it. "Golden Shower" takes that as a jumping point and runs with it.
"Sometimes you see those movements and you laugh, because some of the positions," says del Campo. "It started as a joke and it ended like, 'Why don't we make this like a serious number?'"
What's brilliant is that both men can do the hand-to-hand, but at the same time can make fun of it, offering meaningfully blank stares as they press their faces into each other's crotches and the crowd goes nuts. Up close - and here the small theater is critical to the success of the bit- you can see the intensity on their faces, crucial in keeping audiences guessing.
"We kind of like that uncomfortable moment at the beginning when people are not sure whether we're serious or not," says Underwood. "Are these guys really serious? Are they that bad, or is intentional? That's the moment we're going for."
Alberto says it's vital not to break the serious characters. "For us it's not a joke. We're trying to make you believe that it's actually been done by generations and generations of family," says Alberto.
"We make fun of it and back it up," Underwood says. "It's going to be difficult to watch another one after watching us and not think [about those] bad positions."
The 1230 Clownshow is entertainment that belongs in our post-recession world - chastened, smaller, hungry, creative, new. It's a show that may not appeal to all the masses, but that uses its liabilities- its low-budget lack of spectacle, its small, homey venues - to its advantage. "We're trying to keep it underground," says Alters. "We just want a simple, good, vaudeville vibe with some serious clowning."
The 1230 Clownshow performs Feb. 11 and Feb. 18 at the The Onyx Theater in Commercial Center. Doors open at 11:45 p.m. Info: www.1230show.com.